In the final installment of Sally Christie’s “tantalizing” (New York Daily News) Mistresses of Versailles trilogy, Jeanne Becu, a woman of astounding beauty but humble birth, works her way from the grimy back streets of Paris to the palace of Versailles, where the aging King Louis XV has become a jaded and bitter old philanderer. Jeanne bursts into his life and, as the Comtesse du Barry, quickly becomes his official mistress.
“That beastly bourgeois Pompadour was one thing; a common prostitute quite another kettle of fish.”
After decades suffering the King's endless stream of Royal Favorites, the princesses of the Court have reached a breaking point. Horrified that he would bring the lowborn Comtesse du Barry into the hallowed halls of Versailles, Louis XV’s daughters, led by the indomitable Madame Adelaide, vow eternal enmity and enlist the young dauphiness Marie Antoinette in their fight against the new mistress. But as tensions rise and the French Revolution draws closer, a prostitute in the palace soon becomes the least of the nobility’s concerns.
Told in Christie’s witty and engaging style, the final book in The Mistresses of Versailles trilogy will delight and entrance fans as it once again brings to life the sumptuous and cruel world of eighteenth century Versailles, and France as it approaches inevitable revolution.
If you follow my reviews, you know that I adored the first two books in Sally Christie's Mistresses of Versailles trilogy, both making my list of best books in the years they were released, and I was awaiting the final installment with a mix of anticipation and sadness. Madame du Pompadour's novel was a tour-de-force, and she left huge footsteps to follow. I was skeptical that I could fall in love with the woman who took her place alongside an ageing king who had grown so debauched, cruel, and oblivious that no woman could possibly want to be his mistress for anything other than the perks. But I was wrong.
We first meet Jeanne Becu as a seven-year-old child working as a servant in a courtesan's household. Her unparalleled beauty, even at such an early age, makes life difficult for her as lecherous men seek to take advantage of her and women are jealous of her. She soon finds herself shipped off to a convent, where she spends the next ten years of her life. Though she stifles under such harsh living conditions and religious teachings, Jeanne's generous heart and sweet nature earn her many friends, and when she is finally released, she quickly lands a job at one of Paris's most exclusive dress shops, where beautiful girls attract customers and help sell the wares. Then one day the Comte du Barry walks in, and the rest is history. I knew little about Jeanne other than that she was Louis XV's last mistress, so there were a few surprises for me as I savored this story, some delightful, some tragic, so I will leave the details of what happens from here for the reader to discover.
This book differs from the others in that we have alternating chapters from the viewpoint of Jeanne's avowed enemy, Princess Adelaide. Desperate for any scrap of attention from her father, she determines to be a spinster and convinces her younger sisters to do the same, so that she may always be at her father's court. Thus she never knows romantic love and cannot understand the appeal of intimacy. Though she has a list of reasons why Jeanne, "the harlot," as she calls her, is an abomination in the world of Versailles, underneath it all, her hatred stems from nothing more than pure jealousy. She fosters animosity toward Jeanne in every courtier she speaks to and quickly turns the new dauphine, Marie Antoinette, against her. Adelaide is so resistant to change, so wrapped up in comporting herself in the manner she thinks befitting a princess of France, so blinded by her own self-importance that she allows the best of what life has to offer pass her by. In the end, the death of Louis XV sets both women adrift.
The contrast between these two women could not be more stark. I love Jeanne! A truly sweet soul, she is a free spirit, easily contented, a breath of fresh air at court for those smart enough to embrace her, and she genuinely enjoys making people happy. She managed to see qualities in Louis that not many did, and she brought out a side of him that actually managed to make me feel sorry for him, which I thought impossible after declaring my undying hatred for him at the end of Pompadour's book. I dreaded seeing how the court would snuff out her light. She faces more criticism and ostracizing than any of his other mistresses due to her low birth and the few years she spent as a courtesan under Barry's tutelage. Her beauty, charm, and joie de vivre do manage to win over some of the courtiers, but she faces constant ridicule and rude behavior. My heart ached for her at times. On the other hand, Adelaide is so ridiculous in her rigidity that I would despise her if I didn't feel so sorry for her. She becomes a relic in a world that is moving on without her.
Because I really didn't warm to Adelaide, even though she is necessary to give us a complete picture of the court and the political crisis developing, and because I sometimes had trouble following the passage of time--in some places the story jumped ahead years in a blink and in others only a few months had passed when it felt like years--and because I also found parts to be somewhat repetitive as Jeanne and Adelaide often described the same events as they alternated chapters, I thought I would end up rating this book a tad lower than the others. But the final chapters, in which the French Revolution comes for both women, were so intense, so fraught with emotion, and so devastating, that my estimation went right back up. And that final page had me in tears, as did the author's note.
The author describes this as a trilogy that "examines the personal life of a controversial monarch through the lives of his many mistresses, with a focus on those intimate moments that make history, just as surely as wars and great men do." And that is a perfect description. All three of these books focus on the very human side of history, the lives lived behind the facts that made the history books, the women relegated to the shadows of famous men's legacies. These are sexy, decadent, intimate, and emotional glimpses into the final years of Versailles' glory and the downfall of the nobility, and though I am sad to see this trilogy come to an end, I can't wait to see what Sally Christie will write about next.
My Rating: 4.5 Stars out of 5
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